The sixteenth verse of the third chapter of St John’s gospel is so verbally iconic of the entire Christian narrative that even its “address” is an icon in its own right. There’s actually a song that includes in its lyrics the words “John three-sixteen” … several times. A few years ago, it seemed impossible to view a major sporting event without spotting a huge poster being held up by someone, just saying “John 3:16.”
This is somewhat unfortunate, I think. The mere reference to these words has become a sort of shibboleth, a tool that can be abused as means of being judgmental. I think now of another song from my childhood, one that spoke of two possible “sides” with respect to one’s relation to God, and posing the question, “I’m on the right side, on which side are you?”
As I listen to (what I hope is) the prompting of the Spirit on this Good Friday, I find myself more drawn to John 3:17":
For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.
I’m not gong to weigh in on the Rob Bell controversy over “Is there a Hell?”; I’ve only read the headlines, not the articles. But I can testify from my own experience that there are Christians who seem a whole lot more interested in Hell and how hot it is and how long after death it takes to get there and precisely who’s headed that direction than they are in the love of God and how to spread it. Fifteen years after seeing it, I recall being dumbstruck by a scene in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. A dour Scottish Presbyterian minister is presiding at the burial of one Bess McNeil, who, before departing this life, made some less than laudable choices in her behavior. Looking straight into the grave at the coffin, he declaims, “Bess McNeil, ye are a sinner, and for your sins ye are condemned to Hell!” (Imagine it with a thick Scottish accent.) He appeared to like his job just a little bit to much in that moment.
So I’m aware in this moment of how much God’s project in sending us Jesus is about saving us, not about condemning anyone. Indeed, it’s precisely aimed at combating condemnation. Why? Because he loves us. Of course, that very love means he holds our free will in such high regard that he will not coerce us into loving him back, not annul the choices we make that separate us from him, such separation being the very definition of Hell. But I suspect that whoever’s in Hell is not there because it’s God’s idea.
The music in thenvideo is by Sir John Stainer, taken from his canata The Crucifixion. Yes, it’s rather oozingly Victorian, and that’s not everyone’s taste. I happen to like it … in regulated doses, at any rate. But the performance, you have to admit, is stellar.
Remember. John 3:17.